How to Select a Bible—and Read It

Today there is a glut of Bible versions on the market. Just about everywhere you turn, there are all sorts of specialized Bibles. Not only are there a lot of translations, but each translation appears in several different forms. There are Bibles packaged as devotional aides for men, women, children, singles, and teens, and there are study Bibles for end-times enthusiasts, Lutherans, Orthodox Christians, Charismatics, and Catholics, and there are even bride’s Bibles that are intended to be used as wedding gifts.

If someone told me there was a special devotional Bible for divorced charismatic Lithuanian plumbers with brown hair, I’d be inclined to believe it.

So here are some of my recommendations on how to make a selection.

Which translation?

In my opinion, you should own at least two translations, one for scholarship and one for readability. Your first two translations should be at least ten years old, so that the translators have had time to get reactions and revise their work. The Bible is a huge collection of books; no one ever gets the translation right on the first stab. Everyone and his brother is translating the Bible these days, and they have to differentiate themselves so that people have a reason to buy them. The result is that Bible translations are getting more and more tendentious. So leave the newer translations on the vine until they ripen.

  • For your scholarly translation, I recommend either the (New) Revised Standard Version, the (New) Jerusalem Bible, or the New American Standard Bible. The King James Version is okay if you were raised on it and you can understand it.
  • For your readable translation, I recommend the New International Version, the Good News Bible, or the J. B. Phillips New Testament.

After that, you can add to your collection whatever strikes your fancy.

I would steer clear of Bibles that are marketed as having specific doctrinal or sectarian purposes, especially if they agree with you. What you want is the Word of God, not the Opinions of the Translators. You want to become a humble disciple of Jesus, not a self-satisfied, all-knowing Pharisee.

Which format?

I have nothing against those big floppy leather-bound Bibles with tabs and ribbons; I even own a few like that. But you can’t carry them around, you can’t read them in bed, and when you whip them out, people tend to cringe. They are great for Sunday School class, and they are great for public preaching and teaching, because the print tends to be larger than usual, and you don’t have to pause for your eyes to adjust. If you do these things, by all means buy a big floppy Bible. But for other circumstances you’ll need something more practical.

Teensy Bibles are great for pockets, purses, briefcases, and glove compartments, when you want to carry a Bible without being obvious, but they are tiring to read for any period of time unless you have phenomenal eyesight. Giant Bibles are great for the coffee table, but they are hard to carry around and difficult to manage when you are reading them. Your first Bibles should be for general reading and study; after that you can buy all the pocket testaments and two-ton family Bibles you like.

A paperback Bible is a false economy. Unless you are terminally ill or thinking of changing religions soon, you’ll actually save money by buying a quality Bible than by constantly replacing worn-out paperback Bibles over the years.

For your mainstay, I recommend a hard-back Bible with a modest cover. Usually these are called “pew Bibles,” because they are designed to fit into the hymnal rack in the back of a pew and they are durably bound. They are very functional and not very expensive. You can read them while sitting in a chair, lounging on the sofa, or lying in bed. They don’t look like Bibles, so you can read them in a waiting room or on a bus without looking like Bible Bob the Answer Man.

What about study Bibles?

Generally, I dislike study Bibles, because they tell you what to think, and I am deeply enamored of my own opinions. But study Bibles are helpful in explaining things; for example, that when Jesus called His mother ‘woman,’ it was not disrespectful, or that the Greek idiom ‘you said it’ means yes, or that a penny was a day’s wage or a talent was worth about $10,000. If you do own a study Bible, make sure you get two of differing viewpoints so that you can sift the wheat from the chaff. Above all, steer clear of study Bibles that tell you everything you’d like to believe. Remember, no prophet of God ever came before Israel and said, “Hey guys, you know all that stuff you wanted to believe? Well, it was true!” The Word of God comes to confound, not to confirm; to reprove, not to approve. Beware of the Auntie Christ, who smothers you in comfort and does not challenge you to grow! Therefore steer clear of any study Bible that makes the Word of God harmless and agreeable to your opinions; it can turn you into a complacent, know-it-all Pharisee.

However, there are three study Bibles that will give you the fruit of the latest scholarship—not that you will necessarily agree with their conclusions, mind you, but it is good to be informed:

  • The HarperCollins Study Bible
  • The New Annotated Oxford Bible
  • The New Interpreters Study Bible

The HarperCollins Study Bible and the New Annotated Oxford Bible are commonly used as textbooks in seminaries. The New Interpreters Study Bible became available for the first time in June 2003. It might be the best of the three.

How to read the Bible

Have you ever met someone who read Gone With the Wind a paragraph a day? If you tried that, you would miss the plot, the drama, the emotion; everything. Same thing with the Bible.

The Bible is not a grimoire of magical incantations, and with the exception of Proverbs, it is not a collection of aphorisms. You can’t pull the verses out of context without leaving something very meaningful behind. So read the Bible a book at a time. The chapters and verses are arbitrary divisions. For example, you might sit down one evening and read Genesis from beginning to end. You can read any of the gospels in about an hour, and you’ll get the full flavor of the message and the drama. Paul’s epistles are short and only take a few minutes each.

Here is my Bible reading plan:

  • Read Genesis through 2 Kings as if it were one, long novel.
  • Read each gospel as a complete unit, but don’t read them back to back.
  • Read Acts as the sequel to Luke, which it is.
  • Read each epistle as a unit. Try to relate them back to Acts and to each other.
  • Read Ecclesiastes from beginning to end on a day when you are down.
  • Read the prophets after having studied up on them.
  • Read a psalm or two each day, until you get a feel for them; then read the ones that are appropriate for your needs each day.
  • Read Proverbs like you would eat grapes; just pick out a few and read.
  • Backfill by reading the rest of the Bible whenever you like.

In ancient times, people did not have personal copies of the Bible to read during their quiet times alone. Instead, they heard the Bible read out loud in the synagogue or in the church. In fact, the books of the New Testament were written with this in mind. When an epistle or a gospel arrived, it was read out loud in its entirety to the whole church. They didn’t just cite a verse or two and base the service on that, like we do today in defiance of 1 Timothy 4:13.

It’s okay to study the Bible in minute detail, but not if you neglect the big picture. It’s like running your food through a blender and doing a complex chemical analysis, without ever eating it the way the chef prepared it. Or, to mangle a figure of speech from Jesus, you don’t want to be an expert on gnats, only to be to trompled by the camels.

Something nifty you might try

Now here is a way to experience the Word of God as ancient Christians did. For this exercise, you need four people, four glasses of water, and four copies of the New International Version, or some other readable and responsible translation. (The water is there so you won’t have to get up if your throat gets dry.)

  • Sit in a circle in a quiet room and make sure you won’t be interrupted.
  • Take turns, each of you reading one chapter of Mark out loud to the others.
    There are 16 chapters, so it will come out even.
  • Do not allow any comments or side-conversations until you are finished.
  • When you have finished reading the entire gospel out loud, discuss what you have heard.

You will have an experience you will treasure for years.

A warning

There was a Far Side cartoon by Gary Larsen that showed the difference between what a person says and what a dog hears. The person says all sorts of things, but all the dog understands is something like “Blah blah blah Ginger blah blah blah food.”

Watch out for this phenomenon when you read the Bible. The text in front of you says, “Judge not, lest ye be judged…” but your mind hears, “I’m reading the Bible! Look at me God, I’m reading the Bible! Boy, am I a religious person. Is my thirty minutes of Bible-reading time up yet?”

That’s why I recommend reading the Bible a book at a time, rather than by chopping it up into verses.

You can read my assessment of some of the more popular translations.

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